The New Prohibition: Blue Laws in the Bluegrass

Posted by on September 9, 2017

By Victoria Allen*

In Kentucky, the dialogue surrounding alcohol sales and how they should be restricted often focuses on tangential arguments rather than a fiscal or policy based concern. In 2013, the state legislature passed a measure allowing the sale of alcohol on election days between 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., removing one of the last Prohibition era laws left in the state.

[1] Senate Bill 13 amended Kentucky Revised Statute 244.290 and 244.480 to “permit licensees to sell alcoholic beverages on any primary, regular, local option, or special election days as the default state law.”[2] The law was initially put into place immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, due to the fear that votes could be bought with alcohol,[3] not an unreasonable apprehension when considered within the context of President Andrew Jackson’s summation of 19th century Kentuckians, “I have never in my life seen a Kentuckian without a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey.”[4]

Pushing pioneer era folklore aside for a more educated consideration of Kentucky’s illogical alcohol restrictions, the existence of Blue Laws continues to baffle and amuse. While Prohibition has been in the nation’s rearview mirror for the better part of nine decades, the Commonwealth of Kentucky still adheres to an antiquated set of liquor regulations arising from dubious origins commonly referred to as “Blue Laws.”[5] Blue Laws exist in some shape or fashion in several states.[6] The origin of Blue Laws dates to the beginning of the 17th century in Virginia, when the colony enacted mandatory church attendance and authorized enforcement by militia.[7] Puritan influence propelled Blue Laws to snake across New England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, transforming these rules from obligatory church attendance to an enumerated ethical code across the United States.[8]

Blue Laws still exist in modern day Kentucky, perhaps a phrase that is oxymoronic. While Kentuckians are free to partake in the booze of their choice on election days, they still may not purchase alcohol on Sundays prior to 1 P.M.[9] It is no longer compulsory to attend Church on Sunday mornings, however in lieu of a militia dragging you from your house, Kentuckians face a state imposed window of sobriety on Sunday mornings in its place.[10] While not as restrictive as some states, namely Indiana’s complete prohibition of Sunday alcohol sales,[11] Kentucky’s laws present an inconvenience, even if it is purely theoretical.

The reasoning behind banning Sunday alcohol sales ranges from the religious to safety concerns, however the truth in these claims does not support most of these qualms. There is little evidence to show that states benefit from prohibiting Sunday liquor sales, however the detriment is quite clear.[12] The combination of “high excise taxes and limited shopping opportunities” hurt state liquor sales.[13] Sunday is the second most profitable day for shopping, and consumers tend to spend more on Sundays than on any other day of the week.[14] The economic argument for Blue Laws clearly does not add up.

Because state and local governments cannot rely on religious reasons to justify a ban on alcohol sales,[15] the only other justification left to states is a public safety argument. There have been studies that show that alcohol related risk taking behavior has gone up when there is not a prohibition on alcohol sales,[16]  however there have been studies that prove the opposite. Studies have shown that a repeal of sales does not impact alcohol consumption, but rather public behavior.[17] For instance, a study conducted in Ontario after the repeal of blue laws showed that alcohol consumption increased on Sunday, but decreased on Saturday.[18] There has been little indication to support that the unrestricted sale of alcohol increases public safety threats.

While state alcohol laws treat all liquors equally, the crown jewel of Kentucky tourism is undoubtedly the bourbon industry.[19]

Bourbon distilling and production is responsible for 8,690 jobs and an annual revenue of $413 million for the state of Kentucky. The senate bill to repeal the prohibition of alcohol sales during election days was a positive first step towards making the state friendlier to alcohol producers and distributors. Subsequently, in the last couple of years there have been significant administrative and legislative steps taken to bolster Kentucky’s signature industry of bourbon including Senate Bill 11[20] which allowed the sale of alcohol in the gift shops of distilleries in dry counties, and the proposition of an industry wide tax break for bourbon distillers by current Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin.[21] Kentucky stands to lose more than most states when prohibiting alcohol sales. Through the placement of legal and administrative mechanisms such as senate bills and the restructuring of the state tax scheme could see an increase in the overall benefit Kentucky sees from alcohol sales.


*Victoria Allen is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. She can be reached at vicallen@umich.edu.

[1]Legislature approves bill to allow alcohol sales on Election Day, Lexington Herald-Leader. (Mar. 4, 2017, 12:17 PM),  http://www.kentucky.com/news/politics-government/article44414280.html.

[2] Lifting the Spirits of Kentucky, Stoll Keenon Ogden LLP. (Mar. 4, 2017, 12:30 PM), http://www.skofirm.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/lifting-spirits-kentucky-how-2013-legislative-changes-impact-alcohol-industry-4829_0.pdf.

[3]Rick Howlett, Why Kentucky Bans Alcohol Sales On Election Day, 89.3 WFPL. (Mar. 4, 2017, 1:02 PM), http://wfpl.org/why-kentucky-bans-alcohol-sales-election-days/.

[4]Top 4 Presidential Whiskey Quotes, The Bourbon Review. (Mar. 4, 2017, 1:05 PM),  http://www.gobourbon.com/top-4-presidential-whiskey-quotes/.

[5]Sunday Alcohol Sales History and Analysis, National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. (Mar. 4, 2017, 1:15 PM), http://www.nabca.org/assets/Docs/Research/White%20Papers/Sunday_Sales_Paper_May2015.pdf.

[6] The Sunday Blues: Some US States Don’t Seem to Realize Prohibition is Over, The Guardian. (Mar. 4, 2017, 2:16 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/03/no-sunday-alcohol-sales-states-prohibition.

[7]Sunday Alcohol Sales History and Analysis, National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. (Mar. 4, 2017, 1:15 PM), http://www.nabca.org/assets/Docs/Research/White%20Papers/Sunday_Sales_Paper_May2015.pdf.

[8] Id.

[9] The Sunday Blues: Some US States Don’t Seem to Realize Prohibition is Over, The Guardian. (Mar. 4, 2017, 2:16 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/03/no-sunday-alcohol-sales-states-prohibition.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12]  Sunday Alcohol Sales, Distilled Spirits Council. (Mar. 4, 2017, 2:29), http://www.discus.org/policy/sunday/.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15]Sunday Alcohol Sales History and Analysis, National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. (Mar. 4, 2017, 1:15 PM), http://www.nabca.org/assets/Docs/Research/White%20Papers/Sunday_Sales_Paper_May2015.pdf.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19]Trey Crumbie, Bourbon Pours more than 15,000 jobs, $8.5 billion into Kentucky economy, Lexington Herald-Leader. (Mar. 12, 2017, 8:30 PM). http://www.kentucky.com/news/business/bourbon-industry/article131309394.html.

[20] J. Schickel, D. Thayer, J. Adams, T. Buford, J. Carroll, P. Clark, M. McGarvey, D. Seum, Senate Bill 11, Signed into law April 9, 2016 (Mar. 12, 2017, 8:52 PM), http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/16RS/SB11.htm.

[21] Trey Crumbie, Bourbon Pours more than 15,000 jobs, $8.5 billion into Kentucky economy, Lexington Herald-Leader. (Mar. 12, 2017, 8:30 PM). http://www.kentucky.com/news/business/bourbon-industry/article131309394.html.

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